Environmental formation processes include the chemical, physical, and biological processes by which nature alters cultural materials. The scale at which these processes affect cultural material may be at the artifact level (e.g., the rotting of wood or the corrosion of metals), the site level (e.g., the burrowing of animals), or the regional level (the burial or erosion of sites).
Archeologists must sort out the contributions of the various formation processes to achieve new understandings of past human behavior. An artifact such as a hand axe would be expected to acquire signs of wear in the course of normal use, but could also acquire similar patterns of wear from cultural and environmental processes. By identifying ways that formation processes have altered an artifact, the archeologist can better assess the way the artifact was used in the culture that produced it.
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